Monday, December 14, 2020

Books of 2020: The good, the bad, the show was better

Photo: Bisera Donevska

If I have to name the three most frequent activities people took part in during this pandemic they would go as followed:
1. Working out, because suddenly laying in bed all day doing nothing doesn't sound so appealing
2. Baking, because we have all the time in the world + need to emotionally stuff our faces 
3. Reading, because we came to the realization that looking into a screen all day every day isn't that good for our health 

And so, I did work out, and that lasted for about 2 months and then I stopped so there goes the idea of making a blog post about my favorite workouts (not that I was really planning on doing that). Next up - baking. I did bake, but not a lot due to our broken stove that did produce delicious baked goods in the end, but also produced a lot of headaches as well. So, ladies and gentlemen, that leaves reading on the list, and boy did I read. 

Here's a short summary of my relationship with books & reading: when little, I was a big bookworm and loved reading. That all changed around the highschool mark when I thought I was "too cool" and "did not have enough time to read books". Then, I enrolled in Uni and since I study English Language & Literature, the Literature part did, in fact, entail a lot of required reading - which I absolutely hated because of the way the classes were held & how the program worked. And then, the pandemic hit & I had a huge assignment for class where I had to compare a book of my choice's translation in Macedonian to the original English. My two brain cells chose Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and let's just say that I could have gone the easier route and not taken on an author famous for his extravagant style of storytelling. Alas, I did, in fact, finish the assignment and after reading Lolita in both English & Macedonian, the reading spark was ignited once again. I did always say that there are books I want to read, but never actually pursued buying those books or borrowing them from a library or friend for some unknown reason. So, I made a Goodreads account and started to make a list, which quickly grew from one book to over 50. I first started by going through my personal library, then raiding the ones of my friends, and purchasing some books for myself as well. 

For a "beginner" I think I've read as much as I could have this year, and that all those exams on Literature and the discussions held in class did help me to eventually be able to put into words what I liked and what I didn't when it came to a book. I'm an opinionated person by nature and like to share things that are on my mind quite often, so it was only natural for me to do a blog post solely dedicated to books. I've picked 9 books that I read in 2020, and these are the ones I have the strongest formed opinions on. I read other books that are objectively praised books, but I did not want to just place my stamp on approval on a book without some deeper explanation to it. With that being said, I did throw in a couple of reads that personally disappointed me, which if you have already read and loved, I would love to hear your opinions on them!

So far, most of the books I've read in 2020 are mainly in English and by foreign authors, but I do want to change that so one of my resolutions for 2021 is to read more Macedonian authors. Also, I sometimes post about the books I read on my Instagram, so that's where you can see what I'm reading in real-time! 

*Disclaimer: These are my opinions only. I know books are a very subjective experience, some can love one book and others can hate it - but what matters, in the end, is the discussion and exchange of ideas & opinions. Every opinion is valid and there are no hard feelings when it comes to literature - so even if I don't like a book, but you find the synopsis appealing, PLEASE go ahead and read it. 

"In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child--not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power--the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves."

Starting off the list with the first official book to come out of my extensive Goodreads research - Circe by Madeline Miller. This novel details the life of Circe, the daughter of Helios, god of the sun, and her life's path to power and self-acceptance. If you like mythology & legends, you might recognize her name from the myth about Odysseus and the witch that turned his army of men into swine. Yep, that her. This mythological retelling revolves around everything that might have happened in Circe's life that leads her to be the powerful witch that she is known to be - lots of trials and tribulations, betrayal, love, solitude, and self-doubt that eventually blossoms into an assertive, no bullshit attitude. What made me fall in love with the book was the slow but steady character development, and the means through which it is manifested - she meets mythological characters probably everyone has heard of, and the way she interacts with them shines a light onto a new dimension of each mythological character's personal journey. If you're put off by the fact that it revolves so much around mythology, no worries! I believe that all the editions feature a little explanation of all the characters mentioned on the last few pages of the book. 

"Frances is a college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind - and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa's orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman's sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi."

Sally Rooney has become quite a prominent name these last couple of years in the literary world due to raving reviews stating that she writes realistic characters and puts them in realistic situations. The first book I read from Rooney, with high expectations, was "Conversations With Friends" which I ended up deeply disliking. The premise sounded intriguing, although a bit "already done before" (and I have to admit I'm not a fan of the cheating trope). However, what really irked me about this book was how highly unlikeable all the characters were. I found the main character to be highly selfish, self-obsessed, irrational, and capricious - with no redeeming qualities that would make me root for her, or even care about her. The same went for the other characters, who seemed flat in comparison to the main character and not well-developed. I could see why people think this might be a realistic portrayal of a character, but I would not go as far as to completely agree that these depictions are realistic and would give readers the benefit of a doubt that they're not really "seeing themselves in Frances". However, it is a quick read as so many things happen in a short period (another thing I disliked, no real buildup) and the pages keep turning themselves, so it's easily a one-afternoon type of book.  
"At school, Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers - one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together."

After Conversations With Friends, I was hesitant to start Normal People, the book that probably everyone has heard of due to it's highly anticipated TV series adaptation. I knew I wanted to read the book first, so I went in with some reservations. I ended up liking it more than CWF, but in the end, was not blown away by it. The characters were slightly better developed, but I did notice some similarities in the details of the way the characters in NP and in CWF were written, which proposed two questions in my mind: 1. Did Rooney make a mental note of what "worked" with the characters in CFW and copy-pasted their characteristics onto the ones in NP, or 2. Is this all she's capable of coming up with when it comes to developing her characters? However, I did like the pacing of the book and quite enjoyed the storytelling frame which bounces back and forth between different time frames. I think this was successfully executed, as some books just leave me even more confused and with a slight headache when using this type of storytelling. Ultimately, when I watched the TV series I came to the conclusion that the showrunners did in fact tell the original story better, and that Rooney failed to make me feel the emotions I felt when I watched the show. 
"Widely acknowledged as Gabriel García Márquez’s finest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the fictional Colombian town Macondo and the rise and fall of its founders, the Buendía family. Revealed through intriguing temporal folds, characters inherit the names and dispositions of their family, unfolding patterns that double and recur. The mighty José Arcadio Buendía goes from intrepid, charismatic founder of Macondo to a madman on its fringes. Macondo fights off plagues of insomnia, war, and rain. Mysteries are spun out of almost nothing."

This book almost haunted me everywhere I went for a while, so after eyeing it too many times in the bookshop and watching one of my favorite Booktubers rave about how good of a book One Hundred Years of Solitude was, I finally decided to get it. I was a tad scared because "serious" books such as this one that is considered a classic can easily lose my attention & I often feel either underwhelmed or overwhelmed in the end. Plus, I've never read anything from the magical realism sub-genre, and since Márquez is the founder of the sub-genre I felt even more scared to start it. However, I was pleasantly surprised from the very first page on how easy it was to read. Now, I use the term "easy" lightly here, because this is one of the most attention consuming books I've ever read. Every single sentence is there for a reason, so there are no page-long descriptions that you'll end up skimming through because they feel redundant or the feeling of standing at one point in the plotline for pages on end. Things happen, quick. And that's probably why it took me a long time to finish, my brain needed to take breaks from all that info intake, which is ultimately, still easy to read. And the magical realism, oh wow. This realm of fiction adds little magical or fantastical elements in an everyday setting, & it is unanimous in this world that that's just how things are. So, nobody blinks an eye when people fly up in the sky, or there is neverending rain for years on end. This is how the author successfully managed to place so many allegories to real-life Colombia in the magical city of Macondo. I felt a bit stupid for not knowing these important events in Colombian history, but I made sure to Google everything along the way & it made me appreciate the book even more. The end really sealed the deal for me and cleared up any hesitations or dislikes I had of the book beforehand, it was just the perfect "oh wow, this is genius" moment. 
"In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café that has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time. However, the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . ."

I waited for this book for three months from Book Depository, so let's just say that when it arrived I was reaaally excited to finally read it. The premise sounded so cool: 4 people & a time-traveling cafe, with the gist being you have to get back before the coffee gets cold. And I'm glad to say it definitely did not disappoint. It's such a short but sweet book that deals with 4 different types of relationships with characters that all intertwine and we learn about each character all throughout the book. The author is a playwright, which really did translate into the book because I could clearly imagine the plot as a play perfectly. I did have a favorite and a least favorite story out of the 4, but all in all, loved all of them. 
"Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life - even if they've heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods. But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister."

This one is the perfect example of "bought it for the cover". I mean, we can all agree that the cover is absolutely magical & makes you enthusiastic for whatever story awaits, so imagine our (my friend who bought it and I's) excitement when we read the back and it sounded like the perfect cottagecore, autumnal, cozy read. Sadly, the book did not meet our expectations and it left us annoyed and confused. I was excited to read about sisterly relations, some fun family dynamics spiced up with a side of fantasy, and all I got was poorly written characters, too much attention to boy drama, tons of repetition, and too many ideas thrown into a 400-page book. I appreciate Rena Rossner's attempt at adapting folk tales for the purpose of Jewish representation and taking inspiration from Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, but as you can probably tell already: she needed to pick just two out of these three major themes.  
"The award-winning poet Anne Carson reinvents a genre in Autobiography of Red, a stunning work that is both a novel and a poem, both an unconventional re-creation of the ancient Greek myth of Geryon and the Tenth Labor of Herakles and a wholly original coming-of-age story set in the present."

Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red came to me as a warm suggestion when I posted about Circe on Instagram, and the synopsis really intrigued me, so I immediately downloaded a free PDF I found on Google. At first, I was confused: a novel, but in verse? And what is this foreword? Am I supposed to read it? So I just started from the Title page and went forward, and I'm sure glad I did. I did not expect what a funny, witty, and heartwarming journey this would be - a retelling of the Greek myth of Geryon, a winged red monster now reimagined as a teenager coming from an abusive household feeling out of place in a big world, and Herakles as his friend/mentor/lover. The choice for this novel to be written in verse is quite unusual but isn't that just a perfect fit for an unusual type of story? I laughed, I was scared, I felt sorry for the characters and I was angry - this little book made me feel everything. I will definitely be reading more of Anne Carson in the future. 
"Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone: a convict with a thirst for revenge, a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager, a runaway with a privileged past, a spy known as the Wraith, & a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first."

Ah, where do I even start with this one? Probably the most thrilling reading experience of 2020 for me, and I can't believe I am JUST NOW finding out about this magical universe Leigh Bardugo has created. My friend hyped me up to read the Six of Crows duology after hearing amazing reviews on it, so I bit the bullet and bought a gorgeous collector's edition that was on sale, and in hindsight, this was probably the best decision I made in 2020. This book is one I kept thinking about for days on end after finishing it because it just had it all: the adventure, the group dynamics, the backstories, the romance, the character development, the strong female friendships! Oh, the strong female friendships, I'm so glad an author finally decided not to pin women against each other in a book! This book kept me on my toes & I could not put it down because there were just so many little twists and turns that I did not foresee in the slightest. After reading it, I can see why this series has a major fandom behind it, and if I was 16 and reading this, I would definitely be working on a Tumblr blog dedicated to the book right now. 
"One night on the heath, the brave and respected general Macbeth encounters three witches who foretell that he will become king of Scotland. At first skeptical, he’s urged on by the ruthless, single-minded ambitions of Lady Macbeth, who suffers none of her husband’s doubt. But seeing the prophecy through to the bloody end leads them both spiraling into paranoia, tyranny, madness, and murder."

I had to include one pick from my Uni curriculum, and if any of my Uni friends are reading this right now they would know why Macbeth is on this list. Although we talked *extensively* about Macbeth in class, I feel like this Shakespearean play is a bottomless pit when it comes to analysis & that it holds so much importance for the period that it was written in. Out of all the Shakespeare plays I've read so far, I would place Macbeth in the top 3. It's fast pace, it's intriguing, and can be interpreted in many ways, but definitely not a play for those just starting out with Shakespeare. I watched the play in 2019 as well, and it definitely added to the overall positive impression. 

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